If death and delight mark the opposite poles of mankind's condition, then no place on earth is more human than the Champagne country of France. The placid hills that flank the winding, bottle-green Marne have witnessed vast slaughters from the days of Attila the Hun through those of George S. Patton, yet these same chalky slopes are the birthplace and prime reservoir of that celebratory wine which men associate with the ultimate joys. On the one hand, war and rapine, pillage and destruction: on the other, birth and Bar Mitzvah, love and victory—that is the essence, and the schizophrenia, of Champagne. Last week, down its fast mountain roads and through the halls of its elegant ch√¢teaus, the region manifested the joyful side of its personality with the snarl of engines and a steady, two-day barrage of popping corks. To the gun-shy and war-weary Champenois, the sounds might have called up memories of the Siege of Rheims during World War I or the arrival of the U.S. Third Army in 1944. But to the 150-odd participants in the week's events, everything was filtered through a fine golden haze of bubbles. It was all, as the French say, tr√®s dr√¥le.
The occasion was the second annual Rallye des Champions, a mock-competitive gathering of France's top racing drivers, chefs, entertainers and entrepreneurs, along with their sleek, eye-pleasing ladies. The whole bubbly do was sponsored by Mo√´t & Chandon, the world's largest producer of champagne, in conjunction with Ford of France. Ostensibly, the purpose of the rally was to determine a champion des champions by means of a 137-kilometer drive at high speed through the wine fields surrounding Épernay. But since, to the Frenchman, mere speed doth not a champion make, more complex tasks had been added to the agenda. The true champion would not only have to drive well but also prepare an haute cuisine omelet, catch a string of trout, negotiate an obstacle course on a tall vineyard tractor, powder a parcel of clay pigeons in a trap shoot and demonstrate his prowess on a motorbike. On form, this ultracivilized hexathlon would appear to be immensely challenging, but nothing so serious was intended. "It is a reunion, a chance to have fun," explained Comte Frédéric Chandon de Brialles, the rally's prime mover. "It is a gathering of some interesting people."
Indeed they were, starting with the Count himself, who prefers to be called Fred. A tall, graying, whippet-slim man of 42 with blue eyes as brut as his product, Chandon was a youth during World War II and so has enjoyed an adult life at Rheims unpunctuated by any artillery other than his own. He proved to be an egalitarian host and a cool, quick-cornering driver as well. Chandon had chosen his entry list as carefully as his little old wine makers select grapes for their cuvées. For basic body, there were the heavies: Grand Prix Driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise, the fiercest man in a tight corner since the late Pedro Rodriguez: Three-Star Chef Paul Bocuse, with the sunken black eyes of a mad monk and the lightest crepes in the République: Nina Rindt, widow of the 1970 world champion Jochen, a blonde Bambi who emanates sorrow as poignantly as a piet√†. For zest and sparkle, there were Fran√ßois Cevert, winner of the U.S. Grand Prix (SI, Oct. 11), whose girlish features belie his rakehell nature: and Moustache, the mammoth Parisian comic to whom naught is sacred save laughter and champagne. For bouquet, little more was needed than the presence of Jacqueline Beltoise, Jean-Pierre's wife and Cevert's sister, slender and shapely as a champagne flute but not nearly as fragile. While the male competitors eyed Jacqueline hungrily, the female contestants seemed to wish that Chef Jean Troisgros might consider her for a starring role in his famous Steak Tartare, about which there will be more later.
Most motor races are culinary disasters, with participants and spectators alike forced to gulp down sandwiches and beer to sustain the inner man. Not Fred Chandon's rally. Indeed, as if to underscore the grandest sin of this grand sport, the omelet-making contest was the first event on the schedule. The participants gathered in l'Orangerie du Jardin Fran√ßais, across the road from the winery, for this supreme test of the skillet. Copious amounts of champagne had already flowed, and more was always ready in the misty magnums that circulated through the crowd in the steady hands of blue-smocked sommeliers. The Orangerie was designed in 1807 by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, and Napoleon himself often strolled through its formal French gardens and alongside a reflecting pool filled with aristocratic trout. The emperor, an omelet-freak like all Frenchmen, would doubtless have taken offense at the equipment on hand: thin-skinned skillets and one-burner gas stoves. "An omelet requires a heavy pan and a much hotter flame," grumped Moustache as he separated his whites from his yolks and whipped up a fine eggy froth. Then he grabbed a bottle of St. James rum, slammed back a hearty swig, dashed an equal amount into his mixture and yolked it up some more.
Cevert, meanwhile, was sweating beneath his chef's cap and lashing his concoction with mushrooms, chopped ham and asparagus under the watchful eye of his sister. Beltoise heeded her advice—last year he had spiked his omelet with pebbles and a live goldfish, in memory no doubt of the food he had eaten at Watkins Glen. Thanks to Jacqueline's tutelage, her brother and her husband tied for third place. Egghead of the day was Fran√ßois Mazet, whose rally teammate, Paul Bocuse, played no small role in his success.
The next event was the fishing contest in the placid waters of the reflecting pool. It resembled opening day of the trout season on any American stream: 30 rods flailing frantically over 50 yards of water: obscenities echoing up and down the line as men missed their strikes; exultation as they landed a fish. Only the French chefs seemed to know what they were doing. Bocuse yanked a dozen German brown trout out of his bathtub-sized segment of the pond in as many minutes, one of them a splendid fish of nearly two pounds which he played as tenaciously as if it were a record marlin. By contrast, Michel Jazy, the former world record holder in the mile run, missed strike after strike and finally was pushed into the pool by a rowdy competitor. "I must have been given bad bait," laughed Michel as he drip-dried himself later. "The trout were nipping at my boots when I was in the water, so they were hungry enough." Victory in the fishing contest went to Michel Geurard, an up-and-coming young chef who cleverly stuffed his catch with stones to increase the weight. The judges overlooked that deception, though they disqualified two limp mackerel and a hefty filet of sole presented at the weigh-in by Moustache. "Unfair!" he bellowed, swallowing another tulip of wine.
Next on the agenda was a gymkhana involving vineyard tractors, pony cars and giant plastic Nebuchadnezzars of champagne—empty, of course, but of the same size as those ample containers that house 20 bottles of the real stuff. The event was held in a sprawling parking lot downhill from the Mo√´t & Chandon headquarters, with the tall bottles marking a slalom course through which the contestants threaded their way, tipsily enough to make an American traffic cop think he was in heaven. Nina Rindt and her teammate, La Belle Beltoise, handled the tractors with the skill of born Champenois, but Paul Bocuse was penalized when his partner. Rally Driver Mazet, coached him through the one-mph corners. "Unfair!" belched Bocuse, reaching for another goblet.
The first day of competition ended with no clear victor in sight, which was just as well since none of the contestants could have seen him anyway. A gala dinner in the Caveau Napoleon—one of the myriad cellars carved through 15½ miles of chalk under the Maison Mo√´t & Chandon—terminated the evening. It was an eerie setting, with Jet Setters in all their haute couture and hauteur sipping a 1911 vintage champagne under a vaulted ceiling festooned with mould and cobwebs. One recalled Fortunato's death in the Poe story and listened uneasily for the slap of mortar on stone. All that could be heard was the clinking of crystal.
Next morning, with the actual driving leg of the rally due to begin, Jean-Pierre Beltoise failed to show. Some said he was off testing a new Matra prototype, but one Mo√´t & Chandon employee thought otherwise. "Jean-Pierre was smitten by his succ√®s d'estime in the omelet match and drank too much champagne," he suggested. Jean-Pierre did turn up in time, however, to collect his free champers later. The rally was to begin at the Ch√¢teau de Saran, an 18th century country home just outside Épernay on the slopes of the C√¥te des Blancs, where the Mo√´t & Chandon brass entertain their customers in a style befitting the era of Bonaparte. The first leg, a hill climb up the sinuous asphalt driveway past formal gardens and gnarled beech trees, began inauspiciously when a lady publicist from Paris creamed the hay bales and her male partner bent a fender on the ch√¢teau wall at the top of the slope. Cevert ran the whole chicane in low gear; who needs to take chances during the off season?
By the end of the hill climb the sun had burned its way through the autumnal overcast and the winey vales of the Montagne de Rheims were unfolding in all their amber intricacy. Everyone was thirsty, and the next stop was the Abbey of Hautvillers, where the beloved Dom Pérignon invented champagne 281 years ago. What better incentive for a lead-footed dash through the kinky roads and crumbling villages of the region? Fortunately, the roads of Champagne are well paved and its people eschew jaywalking, otherwise many of the cars might have ended up bloody in the ditches. All hands reached Hautvillers safely, collected a free bottle of Dom Pérignon (vintage 1962, an excellent year, and retailing for about $12 the liter), then sped off for Rheims and more champagne at the auto club. Jacqueline Beltoise and Nina Rindt, driving like grannies along the fast roads en route, were overtaken easily but nonetheless made the "best" time between the two checkpoints. "Unfair!" gurgled the opposition, but a few more glasses of champagne stilled the protest. Another quick dash to the winery of Canard-Duchene, another freebie (this time a magnum apiece of vintage 1966), and the party arrived at Freddy Chandon's villa at Louvois, where a sumptuous buffet had been laid on, along with plenty of—yep—champagne.
The villa was a study in precisely that elegance which triggers revolution: in the central hallway, portraits of puffy, 18th century ladies sneered down on mountains of grapes and cheese, while a gypsy band—Le Pirate et Cie, out of Menton in the south of France—strummed hokum Hispanic songs like a broken 78-rpm record. Fred Chandon had discovered The Pirate during the course of his travels. The Pirate had false teeth, and the inner edge of his upper lip stuck to his teeth while the outer edge curled in a sneer that duplicated those of the painted duchesses on the wall. Smoked trout and asparagus with truffles disappeared like prisoners into a contemporary Bastille, chased along with potted hare, wild strawberries and indecipherable salads. Then up rose Jean Troisgros to rescue the afternoon from ennui. It was the great Steak Tartare caper, and it was well worth the mad dash along the roads of Champagne to see it performed.
First, Troisgros plopped six egg yolks into a dish, then two squirts of tabasco, followed by enough catsup to cover 10 hamburgers. Six Bloody Marys' worth of Worcestershire sauce followed, its pungency enhanced by a plethora of salt. His grizzled beard bristling, Troisgros punished the mixture with a wire whip, then soothed it with two cups of vegetable oil, half a handful of chopped onions, a touch of parsley and three sprigs of fresh watercress. Next, he scooped about two pounds of chopped beef into the bowl, kneaded it heartily, and dosed the result with a healthy shower of brandy. The result: a dish that could turn any civilized man to cannibalism. Indeed, the paunchy singer Tino Rossi ate a full quarter of the recipe and came grumbling back for more. But Troisgros was gone—out into the back lots of the Ch√¢teau for the next event, a trap shoot in which the canny cook dusted 10 birds out of 10 to win. "One learns to shoot in the cooking business," he allowed.
The final event, a mini bike race through another obstacle course marked by the ubiquitous Nebuchadnezzars, provided spills and thrills galore—especially when Cevert's fiancée Christina Caraman took a tantalizing header at two miles an hour on a downslope. Then the skies, which had been glowering all afternoon, opened with a vengeance, and the Beautiful People fled back to the champagne trays.
That evening, the grand trophy was presented. The winners, if anyone really cared, were Jean-Fran√ßois Piot, a rally driver of local repute, and his teammate Jean-Pierre Paoli, a publicist. In a way, it was fitting: there could be no serious winner since there had been no serious contest, and Piot acknowledged the fact with a glass of champagne on the Ch√¢teau de Saran's steps. Cevert, too, recognized the purpose of the two-day blowout by leaping onto a table with The Pirate's slinky, belly-dancing wife and stomping away like a mad, baby-faced gypsy. Then Beltoise replaced him, trying his deadly damndest to crack the table in two. Finally, Moustache mounted the boards—all 300 pounds of him—and when the table still refused to break, dropped his trousers in a brief, briefless and utterly contemptuous gesture. Applause! More champagne!
In the end, of course, it was the Champagne country that triumphed, just as it had over all earlier invaders. One began to understand the mystical nature which winebibbing peoples attribute to their liquid sacrament. As the candles guttered out in the ch√¢teau, and the last cars whined down the winding driveway through the twisted trees, past the poodle-clipped gardens, into the wet, chalky roadways of the Valley of the Maine, one also recalled the lines of the American poet, Alan Seeger, who died in the pallid mud of Champagne during the Great War. Apostrophizing a dead buddy, Seeger wrote:
In the glad revels, in the happy f√™tes,
When cheeks are flushed, and glasses gilt and pearled
With the sweet wine of France that concentrates
The sunshine and the beauty of the world
Drink sometimes, you whose footsteps yet may tread
The undisturbed, delightful paths of Earth,
To those whose blood, in pious duty shed,
Hallows the soil where that same wine had birth....
A rather cool and fitting sentiment. Good night, Nina! Good night, Jacqueline! Good night, Moustache! Good night, Fred! Hic!